Change does not come easily – sometimes it seems like the digital revolution never occurred in the radio newsgathering business. It is not common to see field reporters still lugging around their banged-up-but-trusty Marantz PMDs. Those things become like old friends – quirky, sometimes contentious, but always there.
Product PointsApplications: Location, ENG, broadcast
Key Features: Multiple file formats; programmability; independent line/mic inputs; waveform editing; hybrid connectivity
Contact: Sonifex/Independent Audio at 207-773-2424; Web Site
The new crop of digital audio recording units easily eclipses the old cassette boxes in sonic quality and utility. They offer extended recording time, editing capabilities and superior access times that tape cannot match.
U.K. manufacturer Sonifex is counting on enticing grizzled field veterans into the brave new world of digital audio with its new digital recorder. The Sonifex Courier ($2,695) is a portable digital audio recorder designed for professional field recording and electronic newsgathering (ENG).
With lots of programmable features and onboard editing capabilities, the unit appears to be an all-in-one solution for recording, managing and transferring field audio.
The Courier is a professional unit aimed squarely at the in-the-trenches reporter who may likely be on the road for an extended period of time. Sonifex’s Web site lists among its users the BBC and PBS, and courts in the United Kingdom, suggesting that the unit may also be useful for gathering forensic audio.
Courier records in mono or stereo modes, and audio files can be stored as standard WAV files or can be compressed on the fly to the MPEG-2 format. Sample rates, file format and bit rates can all be defined independently. The Courier uses generic PCMCIA hard disks and cards ($100 to $1,200 depending on capacity) as storage media. Storage time will, of course, vary depending on the bit/sample rates selected and the storage capacity of the media, but storage times up to six hours are possible (see Sonifex website for detatils). The PC flash cards can also download audio files to a suitably equipped DAW for further editing.
Audio can be transferred into a computer as MS-DOS and Windows compatible files. Sonifex promises continual updates to ensure that the Courier is always compatible with the newest equipment and features.
The unit is housed in a dark-gray, lightweight, ABS plastic housing. The base of the unit sports a pair of sturdy rubber boots that protect a standard 6V 8mm camcorder battery used for power in the field. Most of the essential controls are on the top of the unit, grouped around a backlit LCD. This makes it easy for the reporter to access functions like the transport buttons, power on/off, battery and disk display. On the right is a pair of Left/Right input knobs, ganged so that they can be moved simultaneously or independently.
To the right of the display is a pair of cursor controls, which also act as increment/decrement buttons, and an Enter/Execute button that doubles as a peak indicator while in record mode. The LCD provides a variety of information about the recording, playing, editing or status of the unit. Backlighting is provided and can be disabled with an on/off switch, or can be programmed to shut off after a defined period to conserve battery power.
All I/O jacks are housed in a bay on the right side of the unit along with the headphone jack and volume control. There are left/right XLR inputs and outputs along with an AES/EBU output. The PCMCIA slot, an RS232 port and the AC power input can be found on the left side.
The remaining controls are to be found on the top of the Courier. Most prominent is a shuttle/jog wheel combination that shines during the editing process. The inner jog wheel also acts as an alphanumeric input device. Other recessed controls include a line/microphone switch, mic attenuation, phantom power and a low-frequency rolloff. There is also a speaker on the right side for quick monitoring. Directly in the middle are two columns of four green buttons each, which control the editing functions.
It should be noted that when the Courier was introduced in the U.S., an ISDN interface was a planned option. The manufacturer no longer offers this option for use in the U.S.
Getting the Courier up and running was a breeze. I was able to record audio files and perform basic editing without cracking open the manual. The user is required to select a record setting from a primary menu that offers many different recording configurations. I chose CD-quality and a check of the battery/disk function indicated that I had 45 minutes recording time available. The other record settings will yield longer recording times, as their bit/sample rates are significantly lower.
Once in record mode, a pair of meters appeared on the LCD screen. Strangely enough, the meters appeared to be configured for analog audio, perhaps based on the premise that most users are already familiar with analog metering. I discovered that the metering can be changed between PPM and dB scales.
The sound quality at this setting was very good. While there is noticeable degradation of the sound quality at the lower sample/bit rates, none of the settings produced artifacts significant enough to render the audio unusable.
Editing a basic audio file also proved to be easy because of the Courier’s uncomplicated edit scheme. The Courier allows users to perform the most basic cut-and-paste functions on an individual file, and then assemble a group of edited files into a playlist. It is just a matter of defining the area to be cut and performing that operation.
This is made easy with the use of the scrub wheel to search backward and forward. While editing, it is possible to drop markers for reference and to define edit regions. Courier rises to the occasion in this regard. Each sound file generates a corresponding waveform on the LCD. The waveform moves relative to a fixed cursor. There are four levels of undo associated with the edit functions.
Playlist editing requires more attention as it is possible to get lost in the menus. Additionally, the act of adding cuts to the playlist requires a series of button pushes for each cut. It would have been fine if the edit controls and the LCD were on the same plane, but the LCD is on the top of the unit while the edit buttons reside on its front. With regular use it should be possible to develop a feel for the appropriate buttons without constantly having to tilt the unit back and forth to take a peek.
One problem I ran into during my field test was that, on a few occasions during power-up, the Courier demanded that I insert a memory card before proceeding. After a little jiggling, or reseating of the card, it restarted its initialization routine.
This may have occurred when I accidentally knocked the eject button, which is not recessed but is protected by a larger “hood” at the base of the unit. To be fair, this situation is easily avoided by using the Courier’s included travel case, and of course, by making sure the memory card is firmly seated in the nonlocking slot.
Unlike the Eject button, the record setup switches are individually far recessed enough so that they cannot be changed accidentally.
One other area that could be addressed: while the manual provides essential information about the more sophisticated functions, new users of the technology may find the manual a steep climb up the learning curve. On the other hand, the unit was sufficiently easy to use right out of the box that one could consider the manual more of a “look-up reference” when needed.
The Sonifex Courier provides an array of programmable features and compression options for recording directly to removable PCMCIA memory cards. While easy enough for a reporter to quickly get up and recording, getting the most out of this sophisticated unit may require input from an experienced audio engineer or technician. On the other hand, most reporters with a basic knowledge of field audio production should be able to get good results from the Courier right out of the box.